Moves into Geography – Bypassing Dualisms

The move of ANT into the realm of human geography happened parallel to a general conceptual development in the field. This was not least expressed by the cultural turn, the general rise of feminist studies to prominence, and a broad relational view as, for instance, framed in the non representational theory. The import of ANT perspective into the fields of human geography mainly took place along two interconnected routes, both of which were inspired by the principle of general symmetry. In both cases, the prime motivation for turning to ANTwas to bypass what seemed to be insolvable dualism in geographical research practices.

First, during the mid 1990s geographers turned to ANT as a source of inspiration for moving beyond the traditional dichotomy between society and nature. For many, the relation between society, culture, and nature seemed too complex and messy to be easily fit into the conceptual framework of modernity. Geographers in Britain working along these lines included, for instance, Jonathan Murdoch, Nigel Thrift, and Sarah Whatmore. The borderline between what was natural and what was social or cultural came across as increasingly fuzzy in times of global warming, increasing mobilities, expanding use of information technologies, evermore refined cybertechnology, and genetic sciences. The ANT approach promised a way to bypass the dualism between nature and society by shifting the focus away from a priori categories toward the associations and relations through which these were emergent. A very important element of ANT in this regard was that it sees nature and the material as integral to the social and the cultural; the material is already there but is not given the status of an add in variable in a cultural explanation of society as human geographers were prone to do. Key concepts in this regard are the hybrid and quasi objects. The argument made by ANT is that all things are relational or hybrids and if they seem to be solid bits and pieces it is only the effect of work in nets. It is exactly through such
network that our modern world order that neatly separates nature and society has emerged. Importantly, the hybrid is not thought as a mix of two pure forms but simply as a condition of the world where nothing is thinkable outside relations. In the terminology of ANT, the world is like a seamless web and the challenge is to follow how this web is broken up and ordered in the form we recognize as, for instance, society and nature.

Second point of entry for ANT into the realm of human geography was configured by a general debate on philosophies of science. Roughly put, this discussion drew its energy from a rift between those adhering to realism (especially the natural sciences) and those advocating social constructionism (especially the social sciences). As the making of scientific knowledge was one of the earliest domains of ANT research, ANT found itself somewhat caught in the eye of the storm. It did not, however, fit easily to either side of the argument. The proponents of ANT framed the approach as much more material than social constructionism and much more discursive than realism. It thereby offered a middle way that could move beyond the realist–constructionist impasse.

This offer was welcomed by human geographers who saw the realist–constructionist discussion leading nowhere. Early examples may be seen in Thrift’s Spatial Formations, published in 1996 and in the writings of Nick Bingham, Steve Hinchcliffe, and Jonathan Murdoch. ANT highlighted that hardcore social constructionism was the flip side of hard core realism.While the former saw society and culture as explaining everything, the latter gave the power of explanation to natural laws or technical determinism. The principle of general symmetry is critical in this regard. In short, the theorem of general symmetry renders in principle all actants equal. The study policy of ANT then aims at tracing the practical orderings underlying our society and hence the ways power relations are formed and stabilized. It can thus be said that ANT suggests a flat ontology with no taken for granted horizontal or vertical hierarchies; it seeks to trace the becoming of the ontological order we live by. Reality is thereby nothing one can think up independent of the crude and concrete effect of material presence. Cultural meaning is not inscribed in a straightforward way onto material objects but is emergent through relational practice. ANT thereby contends that reality is indeed constructed, but it shifts the focus away from the purely social to the practices of ontological construction of the world, which takes place through heterogeneous actor-networks.

Economic Geography

Since the mid 1990s, ANT has been used in different contexts of geographical research. One subfield which has been affected by ANT is economic geography. For eco omic geographers, it was not so much the idea of hybridity or the ontological stress that was the most interesting part of ANT, but the centrality of the concept of network. During the 1990s, economic geographers paid more and more attention to the ways the economic was situated in a wider fabric of social relations and networks of cultural institutions in a search for more nuanced accounts than were possible with the traditional macro approach of political economy. The focus of analysis was increasingly put on the interconnections between the cultural and the economic and how socioeconomic linkages worked to shape the spatial organization of the capitalistic market economy. Conversely, relational concepts such as chains and network gained ground. Often, conceptualizations of networks took the form of strong social networks inside a bounded region or place linked to a global scale through more sparse or weak connections.

As was explicated above, ANT endorses a different kind of network view than is usual within the social sciences. This may have prohibited its spread or general acceptance in the field but it has also provided a particular edge to the approach in the context of economic geography. ANT has thus not been taken on board by many economic geographers but is however being increasingly accepted and understood as a valuable device especially due to its capacity to bypass dualisms such as between the local and the global and the economic and the cultural.

ANT made it possible to recast economy relevant relations and their ordering in time and space. ANT sees scale as problematic and does not recognize a distinction between a local and a global level or a micro–macro distinction. There are only networks, which are of different lengths to be sure, but still only networks that emerge through practices. The implication of this is that ANT highlights the work and the processes underlying the more or less far reaching networks comprising economic activities. It offers a perspective to study the work of localizing and globalizing, understood as practices that render particular actor-networks so stabilized and robust that they can extend over long distances, even worldwide, but still remaining local at all points. Not surprisingly, the key elements for the extension of local networks are material elements and nonhuman actors.

This approach makes macro theorizing of economic processes, conventional in political economy, problematic because that approach depends on a distinction between local life world and global world of system logic in explaining place specific effects of a globalized economy. The ANT perspective formulates both the life world and the structural logic as relational effects of actor-networks. The ANTapproach also blows up the usual framework of analysis used by institutional economic geographers, which depends on a distinction between social interaction on the microlevel, often seen as unfolding within a bounded place, and macrolevel connections between places. The reason is that more attention is given to diverse forms of connectivity of places and regions. Places are seen as coming into being through relations rather than taken as fixed points that stabilize economic networks. Similarly, markets are not taken for granted, but understood as assembled and materialized through the process of network. The geometric grid like surface of the world on which economic life has been projected is thereby increasingly being disrupted. Alternative spatialities of economic activities are being developed, which make use of topological thinking thus highlighting diverse rationalities and relational configuration of economic practice in time and space.